Supreme Court of Christmas Island

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The Supreme Court of Christmas Island was the highest court for Christmas Island, an external territory of Australia. The court was originally established in 1958 after sovereignty over the island was transferred from the United Kingdom to Australia. The court had jurisdiction to deal with all serious crimes and major civil claims for damages occurring on the island. The court was abolished on 10 May 2002.

Judges from Australian courts were appointed to be judges of the court. Those judges would travel to the island to hear, consider and determine cases. In 1992, courts in Western Australia were given concurrent authority to deal with cases on the island, and those courts became the main venue in which litigation was conducted. Since the court’s abolition, its functions have been replaced by the Supreme Court of Western Australia, which now has sole jurisdiction on the island.

First courts on the island[edit]

Europeans first discovered the island of Christmas Island on Christmas Day, 25 December 1643. Captain William Mynors gave the island its name because of the day it was found.

The British Crown annexed the uninhabited island on 6 June 1888 following the discovery of phosphate on the island. The island was annexed to the Straits Settlements colony on 10 June 1900. Japanese Imperial Forces occupied the island during the Second World War. After the end of the Second World War, a military court was set up in Singapore to prosecute seven people for mutiny during the war. With the dissolution of the Straits Settlements in 1946, the island was included within the new Singapore colony. On 1 October 1958, sovereignty over the island was transferred to the Australian Government following a payment to the Government of Singapore,[1] after a brief period as a separate British colony.

Until 1992, Singapore laws continued to apply to the island, although this changed when legislation was passed bringing the laws of the country into line with Australian law.[2][3]

Establishment of the court[edit]

In 1958 Australia accepted Christmas Island as a territory,[4] and established the court under the Christmas Island Act 1958.[5] The court was designated a superior court of record and had all the same powers that other supreme courts in Australia had. The court was to be constituted according to local ordinances made by the Governor-General of Australia on the advice of the Australian Government.[6][7]

The court was a superior court and a court of record. Judges appointed by the Governor-General constituted it as required. The court was permitted to sit anywhere in Australia as the interests of justice required, and was confined to hearing a case on the island.[8] When hearing criminal cases, the court sat with a jury to determine an accused person’s guilt.[9] If the court sat outside the island, the court could use jurors from the State or Territory that the court was actually sitting at.[10]

Notable cases[edit]

In April 1988 the court tried two defendants concerning the murder of Tan Soo Cher (Tan). Tan had been murdered during the early hours of 12 May 1987 by the infliction of multiple stab wounds to the front and back of his torso and his arms. The defendants were alleged to have approached Tan in the hope of borrowing money. On the defendants’ version of events, Tan refused and brandished a knife. The defendants claimed to have disarmed Tan, stabbed him, and then left with the money found on Tan. The defendants argued self-defence at their trial.[11]

The trial was held in Western Australia rather than Christmas Island and led to the conviction of the defendants. On appeal to the Federal Court of Australia, Justices Jenkinson, Spender and French ordered new trials because the jury was not properly directed as to provocation. The case was unusual in that the defendants were tried on the basis of a murder charge under the Singapore Criminal Code, which continued to apply on Christmas Island, rather than Australian law. The Court remarked that the case highlighted “the legal twilight” in which Australians on Christmas Island lived.[11]:at 55 The Court said that criminal laws were established under the Singapore Code, unchanged since 1958, which in turn had been based on the Indian Penal Code drafted in 1837 and introduced in India in 1862.[11]:at 56 This all led to the unsatisfactory situation of prosecuting Australians under Singaporean law.

Abolition of the court[edit]

Since 1992, courts in Western Australia have undertaken the work of the court under a service delivery arrangement with the Commonwealth Government. This was introduced at the same time as the introduction of Western Australian law to the island. The Western Australian Magistrates Court, District Court, Supreme Court, Family Court, Children's Court and Coroner's Court all provide services to the island as required.[12] As a result, a separate superior court in the territory was no longer necessary. A proclamation issued by the Governor-General formally abolished the Court on 10 May 2002.[13]


  1. ^ Jupp, James (2001). The Australian People. Cambridge University Press. p. 323. ISBN 0-521-80789-1. 
  2. ^ Rumley, D; Forbes, V.L. & Griffin, C (2006). Australia’s Arc of Instability. Springer Publishing. p. 74. ISBN 1-4020-3825-9. 
  3. ^ Christmas Island Act 1958 (Cth) s 8A Application of Western Australian laws.
  4. ^ Christmas Island Act 1958 (Cth).
  5. ^ Christmas Island Act 1958 (Cth) s 11 Supreme Court.
  6. ^ Cowan, Zelman (1959). Federal Jurisdiction in Australia. Oxford University Press. p. 144. ISBN 0-19-550054-7. 
  7. ^ Allan, D E. "Review of Legislation: II Commonwealth". (1959) 4 University of Western Australia Law Review 496: 532. 
  8. ^ Christmas Island Act 1958 (Cth) s 11A Registries and Registrars.
  9. ^ Christmas Island Act 1958 (Cth) s 12 Jurisdiction etc. of the Supreme Court.
  10. ^ Christmas Island Act 1958 (Cth) s 12A Juries outside the Territory.
  11. ^ a b c Chong v The Queen [1989] FCA 66, (1989) 40 A Crim R 22
  12. ^ Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories (May 2006). "Current and future governance arrangements for the Indian Ocean Territories" (PDF). Parliament of Australia. Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 May 2017. 
  13. ^ "Christmas Island Act 1958 - Proclamation (02/05/2002)". 

Further reading[edit]